Sundance Film Fest: Audience Awards–No Impact on Box-Office

I have been thinking of the impact of critics and audience awards on the standing of films in the “real world,” that is, the cruel and competitive theatrical market. “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” was the big winner at the recently concluded 2009 Sundance Film Fest, winning both the Audience and Grand Jury prizes at the Dramatic series.

Will the film find an appreciative audience?  Don’t count on it.  A study of the recent winners of the Sundance Film Fest reveals that winning the public’s vote has little impact on the box-office.  Consider “Quinceneara,” the winner of 2006, “Grace Is Gone” in 2007, and “The Wackness” last year.  All three Audience Award winners were distributed theatrically, and while each film is sui generis, benefiting from its own strengths and suffering from weaknesses, there are some general trends.

Date of Release

The Sundance Film Fest is in mid to late January, yet most of the dramatic entries open months later, either in the summer or fall.  Thus, they don’t take advantage of the media coverage during (or shortly after) the event. 

Some pictures are released a whole year after their Sundance premiere, as is the case of “Phoebe in Wonderland,” which premiered last year (January 2008) and is shown over a year later.  “Sugar,” one of the artistic highlights of last year’s Sundance Fest will be released in April, 15 months after its world premiere.  I am aware that some of these films open late because they take long to get a thetarical distribution deal.

“Quinceneara,” the big winner of the 2006 Sundance Fest, opened in August 2006.  “Grace Is Gone,” which was meant to be the Weinstein Co. Oscar card, was released as late as December 14, 2007.  Winner of last year’s Audience Award “The Wackness,” released by Sony Pictures Classics, began its platform release in July, as counter-programming.

Quinceneara (2006)


“Quinceneara,” co-written and co-directed by the couple Wash Westemoreland and Richard Glatzer, also bears the distinction of winning the Jury and Audience Award, and playing at a number of film festivals, such as the Los Angeles Indie Fest. 


Yet when it was released theatrically, it grossed the small amount of about $1.54 million, well below the average figure of a decent indie these days.  Was it the film’s subject matter, blatantly simplistic ideology? Was it too much of a calculated crowd-pleaser?  An agenda feature that elevated the Latino characters to a saintly mythic level and depicted most of the white characters, particularly the gay ones, in a stereotypical way that proved offensive to gay men and sophisticated viewers who demand more from independent films. It could be that the film fell in between the cracks, as they say, failing to please either of its primary target audiences: the gay and the Latino.


Grace Is Gone (2007)

The film premiered on January 20, 2007 at Sundance, then played at the Telluride Festival, the Deauville Festival of American Cinema in France, the Toronto, and the New York Film Festival in the fall.  Unfortunately, film critics gave “Grace Is Gone” mixed reviews: According to Rotten Tomatoes 59% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 63 reviews. On Metacritic, the film had an average score of 65 out of 100 based on 18 reviews.

That said, “Grace Is Gone” at least scored a number of nominations and awards, which cannot be said about “Quinceneara.”  The music in that film received two Golden Globe nominations, and Clint Eastwood was nominated for Best Original Score, while the song “Grace is Gone” with music by Eastwood and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager was nominated for Best Original Song.